Kentucky Speedway

Mark Story: Kentucky's first Sprint Cup race huge in ways both good and bad

Fans surged around the main gate before the race got under way. The enthusiasm was mirrored on the roads, where congestion had set in well before 11 a.m., despite the fact that the race was not scheduled to start for more than eight hours.
Fans surged around the main gate before the race got under way. The enthusiasm was mirrored on the roads, where congestion had set in well before 11 a.m., despite the fact that the race was not scheduled to start for more than eight hours.

SPARTA — Back in the early days of Kentucky Speedway, Jerry Carroll liked to fantasize about the first moment Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon raced in a Cup Series event in Kentucky.

"It will be huge!" Carroll would exclaim.

After 11 long years, that moment came Saturday night at exactly 7:49 p.m. Darrell Waltrip waved the green flag on The Quaker State 400 and the cars of Earnhardt, Gordon and 41 other Sprint Cup drivers roared into action.

In Kentucky.

After a late caution, Kyle Busch held off Jimmie Johnson in a two-lap shootout and became the first Cup Series winner at Kentucky Speedway.

"Oh yes! Oh yeah!" he exclaimed over the radio as he crossed the finish line.

"This is cool," Busch said later. "Right up there with the best" wins he's had.

Michael Waltrip Racing's David Reutimann edged Johnson for second.

In future years, Saturday's race might be remembered more for the action getting into the track than for what happened on it.

Well before 11 a.m., massive congestion had set in on the roads into the Speedway, especially at the exit (57) off of Interstate 71 from the direction of Cincinnati.

"The roads weren't ready for this," said Shane Coomer, 39, a fan from Richmond.

Bruton Smith clearly agreed. Early in the day, the Kentucky Speedway owner asked fans "to bear with us." Said Smith: "Hopefully the state will fix these highways. I'd do it myself, but I'm not responsible for these highways."

The mass traffic jam reflected the hunger for Cup Series racing of a paying public that had sold out Nationwide Series races, NASCAR's Class AAA, at Kentucky Speedway for a decade.

Even with the travel issues, there was electricity in the grandstands.

Ethan Walters, 14, a student at Letcher Central High School, was seeing his first Cup race ever thanks to his dad, Danny.

To illustrate his level of excitement, Ethan took his left hand, held it in the air and said that represented maximum excitement. He then held his right hand well above the left and said "that's how excited I am."

Another teenager from small-town Kentucky, Jeremy (for reasons you'll see, I'm withholding more identification) was burning to see the Cup race in his home state. Problem was, his boss at a local fast-food joint wouldn't let him off work.

Calling in sick fixed that.

"I had to see the first time Dale Junior raced in Kentucky," the 18-year-old said.

In the garage area before the race, University of Kentucky football assistant Tee Martin was touring the grounds with his wife. Some buddies from TNT had invited the former Tennessee quarterback to his first-ever NASCAR weekend.

Martin said he was hooked. "I'm like a kid in the candy store," he said.

For those who have been patronizing Kentucky Speedway for the decade without a Cup, Saturday was filled with the enchanted sights and sounds of big-league NASCAR.

During the drivers' introductions, the biggest cheer (though some boos, too) went to Earnhardt.

Juan Pablo Montoya got a huge boo, but nothing compared to the jeers for reigning NASCAR bad boy Kyle Busch.

Who then had the last laugh.

"The way we ran tonight was awesome," Busch said.

Going forward, there is work that needs to be done to make Kentucky Speedway more fully Cup-worthy. Whether repaving the bumpy track is one of them depends on which driver you ask. Saturday night's racing was so-so, though the wild finish helped.

Obviously, the traffic plan needs a lot of work.

"We're learning a lot today," Speedway general manager Mark Simendinger said. "I know that's probably not a lot of consolation for somebody who was stuck in all the traffic for hours, but we have gone to school on this."

To see NASCAR's biggest stars in future years, chances are most fans will be forgiving.

Bardstown's Dennis and Gailyn Brock were at Kentucky Speedway on that rainy night 11 years ago when original owner Carroll opened the motorsports palace and more than 63,000 showed up to see a truck race.

Many got a bonus tractor pull the next day, as stuck cars were hauled out of the muddy muck.

"We got mud splashed all over our car," Gailyn said. "It looked like our car was streaked in brown."

Yet they kept coming back.

Says Dennis: "We wanted the Cup race, wanted this day to happen for a long time."

Finally, it happened. In ways good and bad, it was huge.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader